Do People Understand Your Mission?


A quick sniff is all you need to confirm a clarity of purpose.

It just so happens that I am engaged in strategic assessment work for several clients concurrently.  In English, this means that I’m helping them figure out what they should be doing, what they shouldn’t be doing, and how to talk about whatever it is they decide to do.

As part of these engagements, I’m conducting stakeholder interviews to offer my clients 360 degree perspectives on their organizations from board, donors, thought leaders, colleague nonprofits, etc.

What I learned from those interviews is pretty shocking. Nobody has any idea what you do! You don’t even seem to know what you do!

You may think you don’t have this problem. Of course people know what we do! We communicate it in our direct mail pieces, in emails, on our website.

And yet…

That’s exactly what my clients said too. Think for a moment about the consequences if you’re wrong — if people don’t actually get it, even if you thought they did. That would be a pretty huge problem, no?

So let me tell you a really simple way to figure out the truth…


One client. 15 interviews.

I asked what each person believed the mission of the organization was. You know what I got? 15 different mission statements. Really. 15 different ones. Including my favorite. “That’s a good question.”

Some were not even close. To each other or to the real one. When I read the real statement to the interviewees, there was surprise and sometimes laughter. Sometimes the mission statement the interviewee came up with was way better that the real one.

The second question I asked also seemed simple enough. Please tell me one specific example of a tangible success the organization has had in the last year.

Oh the places you go with that question. The word that really trips them up: tangible.


Before your next senior staff meeting or board meeting, give your team members a homework assignment.

Email a link to this article to your Executive Director or CEO, your board, and your senior staff. That will help frame the issue for them.

(Hi ED/CEO/Board member/Senior staffer! Welcome! Click here to get more articles like this delivered to your inbox.)

Have them go and identify 5 people — a movement colleague, a donor, a funder, a government official, a client, a journalist — you get the idea. At your senior staff meeting or board meeting, agree on the list and who is touching base with whom. Make sure the list is diverse and representative of all stakeholders.

Tell them you and the senior team are doing a quick diagnostic with external stakeholders — nothing fancy — just gathering some anecdotal feedback from folks who care deeply about your organization.

Ask them two simple questions:

1) If I met you at a cocktail party and you started talking about our organization, and I asked you what the mission was, what would you say?

2) If at that same cocktail party, I asked you to describe a tangible success the organization has had this year, what would it be?

Take their answers down verbatim. That’s important. Verbatim.

Then 2-3 weeks later, put this item on the senior team agenda. Prior to the meeting, everyone submits their answer to a single person who creates a word document for each question.

The agenda item is simple. Discuss the answers you received. Do your closest stakeholders understand your mission? Can they articulate your successes?

If yes, take the rest of the day off  (Actually that was a joke. Pat yourself on the back while you race back to your desk to continue to do that work that everyone understands so well).

If it’s kind of a mess, you know where to find me. Or find someone. There is work to be done.


1) Email a link to this post to other important stakeholders at your organization — your Executive Director or CEO, senior staff, board members.

2) If you haven’t already, consider subscribing to get more articles like this sent directly to your inbox, about one each week.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Sayydah Garrett

    Great article, Joan! We’re going to reduce our lengthy mission statement to “Securing a better future for Kenyan girls through educational sponsorships.” Oh wait!! That’s not all we do though….back to the drawing board. By the way, we just received our official 501(C)3 tax-exempt letter!! Soooo exciting!

  • Sayydah — I am so delighted to hear that the article prompted a discussion about your mission statement. Congrats on the 501c3 status. You are off to the races!